Last week, a California woman sued the mega-popular Match.com after a post-date rape attempt. She later discovered the man was a convicted sex offender. Now the site will screen sex predators - and its competitors need to follow.
But the prospect of screening sex offenders, or any convicted criminal, for that matter, is incredibly dicy. Sex offenders are reviled in our society beyond most other criminals, but our justice system is still (ostensibly) based on the principle of rehabilitation: that after a criminal's done his time, he deserves a fresh start. Sex offenders might have profound psychological issues that they need to grapple with and overcome, but they never stop being human beings - and human beings are entitled to find other human beings who love them.
But we're also all entitled to not being raped. Not everyone on the national sex offender registry - where Match.com will check up on potential users - is a rapist. But it's a fair assumption that most people, given the choice between grabbing a drink with a sex offender and grabbing a drink with a non-sex offender, will choose the latter. Virtually every single time. And not just because of the stigma, but out of serious safety concerns. Rehabilitation is the goal, but it sure isn't always the result.
Match.com's screening process sounds pretty straightforward: when signing up, users will be checked against the national sex offender registry to see if they have any prior convictions. Presumably, a match on the registry means no Match.com.
But this is tricky! On the one hand, discrimination and stigmatisation are values we're supposed to abhor. Screening people because they're on the offender registry is a form of discrimination. On the other hand, people shouldn't have to risk sexual assault while shopping for a boyfriend online. Assuming a sex offender isn't a threat anymore is naive and dangerous. And physical wellbeing has to trump values to some extent here - as much as we want to believe that every convict is at least on the road to recovery, none of us want to roll the die when we head out for dinner and a drink.
What Match.com is doing is bold and overdue. We applaud the measure for the attitude it represents, even if by the site's own admission, the process is "highly flawed, and it is critical that this effort does not provide a false sense of security to our members". Implementation will be tough. But the knowledge that the site is actively trying to take care of its users - whose dates are paying the bills - is one that everyone should have when they're browsing for the boy and/or girl of their dreams. OK Cupid (owned by Match), eHarmony, JDate - they all need to step up and do something about online predators.
Balancing privacy and precaution is going to be hard. Like we said, blacklisting the entire registry might be overly harsh given the varying nature of crimes and characters, while branding them all as predators on the site is absurd and fascistic - who'd opt-in to wear a scarlet letter? So what about a default checkbox that would screen flagged offenders from search results and messaging, but not ban them entirely? A mechanism that would both give users the option to block out offenders from the rest of the fish in the sea while keeping their privacy somewhat sacred would be safe and dignified. Like we said, it'll be hard to make perfect - but not so hard that it shouldn't be tried. Neither the internet nor sex will ever be totally safe, but companies that can minimise the creep factor, should.